Cannabis In the Ancient World

April 8, 2017

When you walk into a cannabis dispensary, you notice the variety of products and extractions. Edibles, flower, concentrates and tinctures line the display cases. These medicinal and recreational products are just like the ones used during the Victorian times in America and Europe.

People throughout the ages have utilized cannabis in many forms, from tribal shamans to Victorian women. These ingestion methods and applications find their origin in the ancient world, where cannabis was used in medicine, magic, religion and recreation. These earliest civilizations cultivated and traded the psychoactive plant.

The ancients discovered cannabis in their search for ropes, textiles, foods and pharmaceuticals. Some varieties were not fit for fabric and rope, but their sticky psychotropic flowers had a better purpose. The plant was typically harvested and either juiced or smoked. Wine infusion, water extraction and fumigating the dried flower were the most common methods of ingestion. Recent archaeological evidence and surviving documents gives us a window into the historical use of cannabis.

We begin with the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, whose Assyrian and Babylonian culture left behind a large cache of cuneiform clay tablets, dated between 1,000 and 500 BCE, some describing medical and religious practices. The cuneiform word for cannabis was azullu. It was used for treating depression, as well as in different medical recipes. Under the name kunubu, it was one of the ingredients in their religious incense, which they traded with Egypt and Judaea.

The Mesopotamians were likely importing cannabis from Bactria (modern-day Afghanistan and Turkmenistan), where Zoroastrian priests prepared the plant as an ingredient in their religious drinks, called Haoma (Vedic: Soma). Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest religions known, flourished among pre-Iranian cultures around the 7th century BCE, although its roots go back to the second millennium BCE.

In the Kara Kum desert, near the Hindu Kush mountains, a Zoroastrian temple was excavated in the ancient city of Margiana. The city was an oasis along the Silk Road, an informal trade route across Asia and China. Cannabis was traded along the mountain routes of northern Asia.

Cannabis and psychoactive drinks were exported from Margiana into India and other places, possibly even Egypt and Judaea. Scientists found residue of cannabis, ephedra and opium poppy in different pottery at Margiana, dated to about 1,000 BCE.

In ancient India, cannabis was called bhang and ganjha (twisted rope). Their pharmaceutical texts (ca. 1600 BCE) prescribe the plant for treating anxiety, among other common ailments. It was likely an ingredient in Soma and appeared in their Vedic texts.

Cannabis usage in Egypt is first mentioned during the New Kingdom (ca. 2350 BCE). The hieroglyphic symbol shemshemet indicated cannabis and hemp. Other terms were employed in Egyptian medicine. It was used in their pharmacy up to the 1800s CE.

In ancient Judaea, cannabis appears as one of the ingredients in holy incense and anointing oil under the name kaneh bosm in Exodus (30:22-25), dating to 9th or 8th century BCE. The Talmud, another Hebrew text, contains a recipe for wine infused with cannabis and myrrh.

Cannabis hash burnt over the body of a deceased young woman was found in a tomb in Judaea, dating to the Roman Empire (ca. 4th century CE). The drug was applied either as medicine for her child-birth or as part of the funeral ritual.

The ancient Greeks and Romans knew about the region of Bactria and the cannabis plant. The ancient Greek god of wine and intoxication, Dionysus, came from this area. This mythical land of Nysa was said to be filled with potent drugs and medicines. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus (5th century BCE) wrote about the nomadic Scythians and their fumigation of cannabis flowers. They regularly traveled throughout the Silk Road areas, including Bactria, southern Siberian Russia and northwestern China.

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